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Child Molests Dog: A Writing Lesson

One recent afternoon I took my dog Chica, a black English cocker spaniel, on a walk to meet my daughter on her way home from school. When the dog and I were a couple of blocks from the school, a young girl weighed down with a backpack approached us on the sidewalk. Her eyes wide, she headed straight for Chica, who is on a short leash and capable of biting anyone who appears to threaten her or me. I pulled the dog close to me. When the girl started to bend down and extend her arm toward Chica, I said, “Stop! My dog bites!”

Still the girl kept coming, her hand extended toward the dog. Why didn’t she back off? I said, “No! Stop!” and put my hands around my dog’s snout just as the girl, smiling, patted Chica on the top of the head. Then she breezed off, smiling.

In the moment when we came together with our hands on my dog’s head, I realized why the girl had ignored my warnings. In that instant, a gust of music blew from the IPod plugged in the girl’s ear. She had not heard a word I said.

This scary interaction (scary for me because I feared my dog would bite the child) reminded me of writing. Here’s how:

  • Like the girl with the IPod, our readers may ignore us, even when our messages are very clear and concise (“Stop! My dog bites!”).
  • Like the girl, our audience may be oblivious to our messages because of the volume of input they receive.
  • Our communication may be much more important to us than to them, at times because they aren’t aware of the seriousness of the situation.
  • Our readers may see us as different from who we really are (A beautiful dog can’t possibly bite; a message from a clerk or an assistant can’t be significant).

What are we to do when we have essential messages to communicate?

After failing in my first interaction with the girl, I decided it would not happen again. The next time I saw her on the street, it was I who approached her. I signaled her to take out her earplugs. When she did, I told her plainly never to touch my dog because, unfortunately, the dog may bite strangers. She shrugged and put her earplugs back in. However, I am certain she will not go near Chica again.

The lesson? When writing fails, talk plainly to the person you need to reach, if you can. Make them pay attention. Explain the significance of the situation. Although sometimes it may seem easier to get a new dog (job?), take a different path, or “Put a muzzle on it,” these challenges follow us everywhere.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.